A quote from Woody Guthrie’s writings about his entry into the music world reads, “An uncle of mine taught me to play the guitar and I got to going out a couple of nights a week to the cow ranches around to play for square dances. I made up new words to old tunes and sung them everywhere I’d go… With a song, you sing it out, and it soaks in people’s ears and they all jump up and down and sing it with you, and then when you quit singing it, it’s gone, and you get a job singing it again. On top of that you can sing out what you think.”
That’s one quote from the spectacular 340-page coffee table book published in the fall of 2021 called Woody Guthrie: Songs and Art, Words and Wisdom, compiled by Guthrie’s daughter Nora with the support of eminent music historian Robert Santelli, largely culled from the Woody Guthrie Archive in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The book is a delightful visual feast, featuring scads of rare vintage photos, copious examples of Guthrie’s own drawings and sketches, excerpts from diaries and day planners, dozens of reproductions of typed and handwritten letters, lyrics, and poems that let us into his life and his mind in ways that neither his own fascinating autobiography, Bound for Glory, nor conventional posthumous biographies did. Though it feels about 90 percent Guthrie, the remaining ten percent consists of illuminating and thoughtful pieces about him and his impact from the authors, son Arlo Guthrie, and such disparate contemporary voices as Rosanne Cash, Chuck D, Ani DiFranco, historian Douglas Brinkley, and actor Jeff Daniels. There is much about his life and struggles as a working and touring musician and also much about his family life and its many ups and downs—in one heartbreaking letter he describes the excruciating pain of losing his four-year-old daughter in an apartment fire in 1947. And then there are his writings on the larger world—politics, unions, civil rights, and his thoughts on such musicians as Lead Belly, Sonny Terry, and others.
It’s the kind of book you’ll want to return to again and again because there’s seemingly always another song or poem to unravel, an ink rendering you might have missed first time through, bits of minutia that reveal more about this remarkable figure. Open it to any two-page spread and you’ll likely find something illuminating. In the end it really is a warts-and-all self-portrait, in which Guthrie’s shortcomings and foibles are on full display (and in his own hand), but what a remarkable thinker, poet, songwriter, and humanist—a plain-spoken everyman who was also one-of-a-kind exceptional.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.